Home Business & Finance Distance Leadership in International Corporations: Why Organizations Struggle when Distances Grow
Leader-Follower Interaction Frequency
Interaction and communication
To understand the impact of communication on the leader-follower relationship it is important to briefly look into communication theory. Early literature on communication already highlights the distinction between communication and information flow. Ruben (1992) defines communication as “an interactive process involving the transformation of information” (p. 22). The major difference lies within the construction of meaning which is particularly present in communication, whereas information is not transmitted as such. Conveying meaning through human interaction is often the constraint as interaction is perceived as complex and difficult to predict and control (Ruben, 1984).
Communication and virtuality become subject to study since technologies have facilitated interaction over space and time. Yet communication is often regarded as the major obstacle to be surmounted in virtual team leadership (Zakaria et al., 2004). Problems could arise in intercultural teams as some cultures are able to establish relationships and trust more easily, therefore causing issues for other team members. Consequently, the communication medium must be individualized to the recipient in order to exchange information effectively.
Modifications in the workplace have occurred mainly due to decentralization and the resulting need for advances in technology. Recent technologies are seen as advantageous to global entities, enabling them “to rapidly form teams that are not restricted by geography, time, or organizational boundaries” (Avolio et al., 2001, p. 337). Distances can be overcome by equipping distributed groups with technological communication media such as e-mail, telephone conferencing, and videoconferencing (McGrath & Hollingshead, 1994). Leaders and followers must communicate in order for the work to function (Gibson et al., 2009). Additionally, their responsibility includes creating a comfortable environment for group members to communicate and it is the leaders’ responsibility to ensure frequent and open communication (Cummings, 2008). In distant leader-follower conditions the task of group work stays the same, yet means and modes of communication change (Herrmann, Huneke & Rohrberg, 2012, p. 86). Indeed, frequent communication within the group as well as with the leaders was found to be positively related to group performance in a study by Cummings (2008) indicating that leader-follower communication is viable in a distant work environment. Outcomes of the research further suggest that leaders of high-performing teams use informal face-to-face meetings more frequently while leaders of rather low-performing groups use more scheduled virtual communication media. As face-to-face communication occurs less frequent?ly in virtual collaboration, leaders of virtual teams need to know how they can influence distant team members to achieve expected results. Communication frequency among the team members decreases drastically with distance (Cummings, 2008, p. 46). It is hence not surprising that team effectiveness is a matter of frequent interaction between team members. Interaction should also be scheduled in a temporal rhythm. This rhythm might be composed of “regular, intense face-to-face meetings, followed by less intensive shorter interaction incidents using various media” (Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000, p. 489).
Avolio et al. (2001) illustrate the advantages of recent technologies as enablers for organizations “to rapidly form teams that are not restricted by geography, time, or organizational boundaries” (Avolio et al., 2001, p. 337). Communicating over long distances can pose problems for leaders when it comes to showing transformational behavior, such as being inspirational, unless followers can see or hear them (Anto- nakis & Atwater, 2002, p. 698). Yet Kahai, Huang and Jestice (2012) found that transmitting limited characteristics in a virtual world can still be advantageous. Leaders engaging in transformational behaviors were particularly found to be successful and encouraged group interaction.
According to Balthazard and colleagues (2009) the most common way to evaluate emergent or trans-formational leadership is simply to ask team members which individual they perceive to be the group leader. In a virtual setting, however, the authors found that - unlike in face-to-face teams - personality traits do not encourage the emergence of transformational leadership perceptions. This might be due to the fact that the individuals do not usually meet in person. Instead, communication is used as a substitute to drive the relationship between personality characteristics and perceptions of transformational leadership (Balthazard et al., 2009). How and how often individuals communicate could therefore impact the emergence of transformational leadership. Researchers thus agree that virtual team leaders require different leadership skills than traditional leaders (Caulat, 2006; Hambley et al., 2007a).
In a study on global virtual teams in Europe, Mexico and the United States by Kayworth and Leidner (2002), leadership effectiveness was found to be mostly related to mentoring abilities of leaders when acting in a virtual environment. Outcomes indicate effective leadership to be related to team members’ perception of effective communication, communication satisfaction, and the capability of leaders to establish role clarity among the virtual team members. Effective leaders communicated frequently with team members, provided detailed information, and answered rapidly. Particularly, motivational and mentoring activities affecting the value-oriented side of the subordinate can be used to alter perceptions.
Hoyt and Blascovich (2003) discovered differences in quantitative and qualitative performance when collaborating in a virtual environment. Groups performed better quantitatively under transactional leaders in both, face-to-face and virtual teams. However, under transformational leadership the oppo-site was found. Here both, face-to-face and virtual teams showed better qualitative performance. For tasks that depend on qualitative outcomes, findings suggest transformational leadership is more effective, whereas for repetitive tasks where output counts, transactional behaviors might be more effective.
In an academic study by Kelloway, Barling, Comtois and Gatien (2003) students were found to differentiate between different leadership styles when e-mail messages were exchanged. Until then, it has not been clear whether receivers of messages could detect different leadership styles simply by reading e-mails. The study shows that individuals can distinguish and respond to different leadership styles even when communication is solely electronic. The findings from the previous paragraph suggest that it is valid to predict physical distance to have a moderating effect on the relationship between leadership behavior and follower performance.
Hambley, O’Neill and Kline (2007b) explored effects of transformational and transactional leadership styles, and means of communication on team outcomes. The researchers found that the impact of leadership style on constructive team interaction did not significantly depend on the types of media employed. Teams did not interact more defensively using less rich media either. Team cohesion was also not predicted by the usage of less or more rich means of communication. Finally, tests revealed that communication media did not have a significant impact on task performance; yet, richer media seemed to have some positive influence on team interaction. Summarizing the study, findings indicate that leadership behavior has only limited impact on predicting team outcomes, considering communication through rich or less rich media. Outcomes suggest that teams do interact differently or more defensively through less rich media and declare videoconferencing and chat to be a possible alternative to face-to-face interaction.
Subsequent findings supported the assumption that leadership effects rely on communication media (Kahai et al., 2012, p. 743). Results of one study indicate that the effect of leadership behavior on work-related outcomes is moderated by media richness (Huang et al., 2010). The decision whether rich or lean media should be used is the responsibility of leaders in the coordination function (Cascio, 2000). In order to differentiate between rich and lean media it is required to check which type of media is appropriate for which situation. Media richness is determined as “capacity to process rich information” (Daft & Lengel, 1986, p. 560); thus denoted by its capacity for language variety, multiple cues, immediate feedback, and personalization. Rich media (e.g., telephone, videoconferencing, face-to-face meetings) is more suitable for situations in which complex communication is required, whereas lean media (e.g., mail, e-mail, fax, chat) channels are suited to standardized routines. In situations in which lean media is used, transactional leadership encourages task cohesion and transformational leadership develops a cooperative environment (Huang et al., 2010). When media is utterly rich, these effects diminish. E-mail is mainly used to facilitate the organization of collaboration and to improve communication, whereas teleconferencing (and nowadays videoconferencing) is used to replace face-to-face meetings and progress reports. Team leaders use telephone conferences multiple times per day to receive status updates. Specific information is often distributed through online document sharing software (Bradner & Mark, 2008, p. 57).
Research confirms that a high level of information exchange results in a better team performance (Weisband, 2002). However, this is true only to a certain extent. Pa- trashkova and McComb (2004) found that performance increased with the degree of communication until a mid-level frequency is reached but then remains stable and does not improve further. Specifically, text-only usage was found to result in better performance than audio-only communication (Baker, 2002, p. 88). The addition of video to text-only showed lower output, whereas the addition of video to audio-only caused slightly higher output. A study by Hambley et al. (2007b) found team interaction scores were almost equal for videoconference and chat teams and equally cohesive. Videoconferencing as such is therefore not regarded as a substantial improvement over chat. However, when teams used videoconferencing it cost them less time to fulfill a task compared to when using chat media. Results indicate that in situations where teams cannot meet face-to-face, using functionalities of videoconferencing may be a feasible alternative (Baker, 2002; Hambley et al., 2007b).
Kelley and Kelloway (2012) investigated effects of contextual factors on perceptions of leadership style. Four predominant contextual aspects, namely perceived control, regularly scheduled communication, unplanned communication, and prior knowledge (of the history between group members) were evaluated in predicting perceptions of transformational leadership (p. 444). For the remote sample, transformational leadership predicted job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and manager trust. Transformational leadership was further predicted by perceived control, regularly scheduled communication, unplanned communication, and prior knowledge. For the proximal group, perceived control and unplanned communication predicted perceptions of transformational leadership. Correlations in the prox?imal and distant sample vary in strength, indicating that the four selected contextual factors are not as important in a close setting.
Hoch and Kozlowski (2014) studied effects of hierarchical leadership, structural supports, and shared leadership on team performance, controlling for influences of team virtuality. The researchers found influences of hierarchical leadership to be destabilized when teamwork is conducted predominantly virtually. Diminished leadership behaviors should thus be replaced. Under increasing levels of virtuality, structural supports, such as reward systems and communication and information, were more strongly related to team performance than hierarchical leadership. Shared team leadership predicted team performance positively, regardless of the level of virtuality.
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